Sophie on Romanticism (pp. 342-359) Sophie's World (Gaarder)

The Romantic Era began toward the end of the eighteenth century and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. It started in Germany as a reaction to the Enlightenment's unequivocal emphasis on reason. The new catchwords were 'feeling', 'imagination', and 'yearning'. 

Many of the Romantics saw themselves as the German philosopher Kant's successors. Kant had established that there was a limit to what we can know about 'things in themselves': we can only know the world through sense impressions, but those impressions are shaped by the attributes of our minds. So, our minds limit our understanding of reality. Even so, through exercise of the imagination we are brought closer to an experience of 'the thing in itself'.

The Romantics who followed Kant emphasized the importance of the individual's contribution to knowledge. They glorified the artist's unique interpretation of life. By abandoning ourselves to the aesthetic experience of an art work of genius, we push beyond the limited realm of logic and move closer to 'the inexpressible'. In his transports of artistic rapture, the poet, musician or painter could sense the dissolving boundary between dream and reality.

Coleridge said, 

What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?

The yearning for the distant and unattainable was characteristic of the Romantics. They longed for bygone eras such as the Middle Ages, and they longed for distant cultures like the Orient with its mysticism. They were drawn to night, to twilight, to old ruins and the supernatural. 

The Romantics believed that all of nature, both the human soul and physical reality, is the expression of one Absolute or World Spirit. In this sense we can see the influence of neo-Platonic thought on their understanding of the universe. However, Nature was also thought of as an organism, a living being constantly developing its own innate potentialities. Aristotle had said much the same thing: substance strives to achieve a potential form, and the universe itself is evolving towards a final form.

Another German philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), developed this dynamic notion of the universe's substance by asserting that history itself is characterized by evolution and design. He believed that history was divided into particular epochs and each has its own leading ideas and intrinsic values. He also believed that each nation has its own character or 'soul' determined by its unique folk culture, language and history. A nation's people are understood as one collective organism unfolding its own innate potentiality. Herder encouraged the collection of folk songs and folk tales, calling them Voices of the People. The Brothers Grimm made a famous collection of old German fairy tales: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Rumpelstiltskin". "Hansel and Gretel", and "The Frog Prince", among many others. The fairy tale genre was passionately cultivated by the Romantics. One of the German masters of the genre was E.T.A. Hoffman.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Sophie's World (Gaarder), pp. 322-341 Kant

Rescuing the Scientific Method by Affirming the Primacy of our Subjectivity
Rescuing Free Will in a World Determined by Cause and Effect

Kant was another great synthesizer in the history of philosophy who melded the rationalism of Descartes with the empiricism of Locke:

  • rationalists: the basis for human knowledge is in the mind
  • empiricists: all knowledge of the world proceeds from the senses

Kant believed that both sensation and reason contribute to our conception of the world:

  • All knowledge comes from sensation, but those sensations are filtered and altered by the conditions of the mind. Furthermore, it is the attributes of reason which create the human conception of reality. (Compare to seeing the world through a pair of red sun glasses. Or compare to the shape water takes when it is poured into a pitcher.)
  • So, Time and Space become physical entities through human modes of perception. The law of causality belongs to the human mind. Our innate perception of the world demands cause and effect. This mode of perception shapes our understanding of the material substance of reality.  (In this way Kant rebuts Hume's radical empiricism: his belief that cause and effect cannot be proven as a law.) 
  • Compare  the different responses a cat and a human would have to a ball rolled by them. The cat would chase the ball; the human would look to see who had rolled the ball.

However, Kant also believed that the apparatus of reason prevents us from knowing the world in itself; we can only know how the world appears to us.

  • the thing in itself: the substance of the material world
  • the thing for me: how the material world appears to me die to the forms of knowledge

Kant argued that it was impossible to prove the existence of God either through reason (Descartes) or experience (Aristotle). However, he insisted that the existence of a soul, of God, and of human free will was a moral necessity. Therefore, for these practical reasons we must possess an innate ability to distinguish right from wrong in the same way that we perceive phenomena as linked in a causal sequence. For Kant moral sense precedes experience-- it applies to all people at all times.

Kant also believed that only through moral action do we act freely. The conditions of the environment and the specificity of the apparatus (physical and mental) with which we are born determine our behavior. Only by engaging in difficult moral decisions can we achieve freedom and actually participate in the world as it is beyond our sensory perception.

  • The Categorical Imperative: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become a Universal Law of Nature." (Or, cut the cake, and let the other choose which piece too eat first.)
  • "Treat others not only as a means but as an end."

Sophie on Hegel

  • Hegel rejected Kant's idea that the material world, "the thing in itself" was beyond the human ability to directly perceive. Even so, he asserted that the truth is subjective and changes from generation to generation. He believed that there are no eternal truths.
  • Hegel believed the truth to be inherent in an evolving "world spirit" which is the sum of human utterances, thought and culture. 
  • Only through studying the history of ideas can we gain insight into the way the world spirit is evolving and the forms it has taken in different ages.
  • Human actions can only be deemed to be right or wrong in relation to their historical context. (ex slavery)
  • Progress: Reason is progressive: the world spirit is developing towards 'consciousness of itself': a state of greater rationality and human freedom. The world spirit has passed through two phases (the subjective and the objective) and it will culminate in a third phase (the absolute).
  • The Dialectic:  the history of ideas progresses through conflict: a thought generates its opposite and then a third thought creatively synthesizes the two. 
  • For example,
The Eleatics (material substance is eternal). vs. Heraclitus (everything constantly changes)

Empedocles synthesized both ideas in his atomic theory.


Descartes's rationalism

Hume's empiricism

Kant's synthesis of the two